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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era CHAPTER 4 THE FEDERAL ROLE IN THE DEVELOPMENT AND ADOPTION OF TECHNOLOGY The United States has a predominantly private system for promoting and rewarding the development and adoption of new technology. The federal government’s primary roles in this system have been to foster a stable economic and financial environment; to encourage investment in plant, equipment, human resources, and intellectual resources; and to regulate companies and markets when necessary to meet public objectives. However, the federal government has a long history of involvement in some matters affecting industrial technology. Through its support of research and development at universities, government laboratories, and industries, it has helped generate much of the new knowledge and educated people critical to industries at the cutting edge of technology. This contribution is best seen in areas widely recognized as appropriate federal responsibilities, such as public health, national security, energy development, environmental protection, or interstate transportation. In selected cases, such as agriculture and aviation, the government has also helped fund research and development to meet specific commercial objectives with outstanding success. In the past, this predominantly private system has worked well. Propelled by new technologies, industrial productivity has been higher in the United States than in any other country throughout the twentieth century. The government’s support of technology for public missions has also led to pioneering achievements in military technology, space exploration, medical technologies, and other areas.
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era The United States still has the highest overall industrial productivity in the world. However, the rate of productivity growth is higher in some other nations, and the gap between U.S. performance and performance in other countries has been narrowing. Some of this erosion of advantage was inevitable. U.S. industry could not have remained as far ahead of industries in Europe and Asia as it was at the end of World War II. Nor would this have been desirable, given the larger markets created by expanding economies abroad. As described earlier, the new knowledge resulting from scientific research and development has become a major contributor to industrial success. But new scientific discovery by itself is rarely enough to raise industrial performance. Scientific knowledge must be effectively extended and applied through engineering into successful technologies. For commercial technologies, the federal government traditionally has chosen to support basic research and mission-driven research and to leave the development and application process largely to industry. In today’s more competitive and technologically interdependent world, this approach may no longer be sufficient. Companies in other countries, sometimes favored by national industrial policies, are equaling and in some cases surpassing U.S. firms in specific areas of industrial technology, which has helped them capture market share and high-paying jobs.1 The federal government increasingly requires strong U.S. industries to meet national objectives in such areas as defense, public health, and environmental protection.2 And many corporate R&D programs are now focusing more on shorter-term objectives with financial returns that the research-performing company can capture rather than on longer-term objectives with less easily captured benefits but where returns to the nation may be substantial. For these reasons, the government should now take a more forceful approach to the development and adoption of technology than it has in the past. That approach, however, must be channeled. Given the
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era vast array of current and prospective technologies that may compete for attention and resources, and the diverse federal agencies and programs that need to be enlisted in the effort, a focused strategy is needed. The committee thus recommends a national goal for technology that in some respects parallels our goal for science. The federal government should cooperate with the private sector to ensure that the United States maintains a position of technological leadership in those technologies that promise to have a major and continuing impact on broad areas of industrial and economic performance. The philosophy guiding this recommendation is that a large and diverse economy such as that of the United States should not allow technological backwardness to be the decisive factor in the loss or failure of important industries. We recognize that firms and industries rise and fall for many reasons aside from technology, depending on their own capacities and practices, and that these capacities and practices have not generally been the object of public policy in the United States. But the national interest in technological improvement may extend beyond that of any individual firm or industry. Because new technologies so often form the basis of internationally significant new industries or help ensure the survival of existing ones, the federal government should help foster such technologies. Normally, the United States will already be a participant in the relevant industry, but there will be some occasions when it is not. As with our national goal for science, the goal of being in a leadership position does not require that the United States be preeminent in each designated technology. But it does mean that the United States should be close enough to the frontiers in these areas that it can promptly take advantage of developments that occur in the United States or in other countries.
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era This national goal for technology can be effective only if it is applied selectively. We suggest three guidelines for identifying key technologies. First, the nation should actively seek to preserve its traditional leadership in the development of technologies that create major new markets. Historically, these technologies have often had a base in recent advances in research. Major current industries— among them computers, semiconductors, and advanced materials— did not exist in earlier decades, but now they are of major economic importance, are expanding rapidly, and provide large numbers of skilled jobs. The United States —with its well-trained labor force and large domestic market for new products—has a natural competitive advantage in pioneering new industries, and this nation should maintain its traditional leadership in creating and driving new high-technology markets. Second, the United States needs to emphasize technologies for which the relevant firms have a demonstrated capacity to convert technology into a marketable product ; one indicator of such capacity is that such firms are already competing in global markets. Our most successful industries have the familiarity with changing world markets and the technical know-how needed to convert development ideas into products and services, and these industries should not founder because of a lack of technology. U.S. policy should ensure that industrial and governmental leaders are alert to technological developments, wherever they take place, that can contribute to the continued success of major industries in world markets. Third, there are occasions when national strategic considerations, rather than economic factors, lead the government to identify technologies where it is essential that the United States remain competitive with other nations. One example is the recent initiative, based in part on national security grounds, to improve manufacturing technologies for semiconductors. The implementation of this national goal for technology,
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era EXAMPLES OF TECHNOLOGIES WHERE LEADERSHIP IS IMPORTANT An example of a technology that may have the capacity to transform a major sector of the global economy is advanced power battery technology. The U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium recently was established to unify private and governmental efforts to extend significantly the range and performance of electric vehicles. Costs are shared among the major U.S. auto makers, the private Electric Power Research Institute, battery companies, and the Department of Energy. The tools and techniques that underlie the biotechnology industry are examples of technologies based extensively on federally supported research and development. Federal funding has traditionally focused on health-related areas, but the government has recently begun to expand its support for research in areas such as agriculture, bioprocessing, and environmental remediation. Another example of an advanced technology that may stimulate entirely new markets is broadband communications, including fiber optic networks, especially as they relate to the local delivery of massive data bases. This is an area of traditional leadership by the private sector, and the appropriate amount of government involvement remains to be determined. An argument for government investment is that some potential applications—the delivery of data to schoolrooms, the exchange of large data sets among collaborating researchers—are nationally important applications that are not well reflected in the economic marketplace. including the application and refinement of these guidelines, will require a process that combines the expertise and views of government policymakers, private-sector leaders in technology-intensive business, and relevant economic, technological, and other experts. The fundamental difference between our national goals for technology and science is that the technology goal cannot be achieved primarily through federal policies. Technological leadership in the commercial marketplace is the responsibility of the private sector. Therefore, as the federal government seeks to promote technological leadership more actively, it has available only
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era the economic policy levers that permit market forces to play a major role. In practice, this means that private sector initiative should normally determine which ideas to support. In particular, support for R&D projects should derive from competition among industry-generated proposals and should require cost-sharing from industry as a test of market value. Because the goals can be distorted by political influence, the government must strive to minimize such influences in federal actions. We envision a role for the federal government in promoting—through technological advance—national economic performance where the government itself is not the customer. This role must be discharged in partnership with industry. Policy measures should embrace a diversity of experiments in how to carry out this role successfully, because at this stage the effects of various policy mechanisms are incompletely understood and only a fragile national consensus exists on the limits of government latitude in this area. The government must be prepared to discard programs that do not work and reallocate resources to those that do. This chapter focuses largely on the performance of the general economy and not on the public missions (such as national defense and public health) that the federal government has traditionally pursued. With the end of the Cold War, and with the rapid technological advances in the private sector, public missions will depend more heavily on advances in the private sector. To the extent that we maintain a strong civil technology base, these broad public missions will also benefit. For example, to promote technologies needed for national defense, the federal government will need to devote special attention to the growing number of national technologies that both serve civilian markets and have military importance. We do not attempt, in this document, to provide a detailed prescription for executing a federal technology policy. Rather, we seek to explore some of the tools that the federal government can use to achieve the stated technology goal. Nor can we, at this time,
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era gauge the resources needed to implement this strategy. Two recent reports from the National Academy of Sciences complex analyze existing federal programs and provide recommendations for change: The Government Role in Civilian Technology: Building a New Alliance 3 by a panel organized under this committee, and Mastering a New Role: Shaping Technology Policy for National Economic Performance 4 by a committee of the National Academy of Engineering. CREATING A FAVORABLE ENVIRONMENT FOR THE DEVELOPMENT AND ADOPTION OF TECHNOLOGY Because the development and adoption of technology are largely private responsibilities, the most important task of the federal government remains that of creating an environment in which technology can flourish. Doing so is a complex challenge. Many federal policies influence the development and adoption of new technologies, including federal policies that affect investment, taxes, trade, antitrust restrictions, intellectual property rights, environmental protection, health regulations, and product liability. Government support for the infrastructure of our society—schools and universities, transportation and communication networks, health care and social services—also has an important indirect influence on technology. Governmental policies in these areas have seldom been designed to meet technological goals. As a result, the effects of these policies on the development, adoption, and application of technology have been uneven and sometimes contradictory. Even those policies and programs more explicitly focused on technology are, by American tradition, decentralized and pluralistic. For example, the federal government does not have a unitary Department of Technology or a Department of Science. Individual agencies pursue their own missions, with more or less detailed oversight from the White House or the Congress. Coordination between state and federal programs for the general promotion of technology is likewise haphazard.
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era On the positive side, pluralistic policies at the federal and state levels allow industry to be flexible and adaptable in the face of change. But as technology has become more important to both public and private missions, a need for coordination has become plain. A similar need has arisen to integrate the planning and implementation of federal technology policy with both domestic and foreign economic policy. Specific institutional reforms can bring greater coherence to policy considerations that affect technology both in the Executive Branch 5 and in Congress.6 The recent creation, in the Executive Office of the President, of the National Economic Council and its close working relationship with the Office of Science and Technology Policy can be important steps in this direction. FEDERAL SUPPORT FOR THE DEVELOPMENT AND ADOPTION OF TECHNOLOGY Between the federal government’s two traditional forms of support for research and development—basic research and mission-oriented research and development—there lies an important gap. This is the area where private industry is active but may fail to pursue some commercially promising technologies because the necessary research and development may be too costly, lengthy, or risky for an individual company. When these considerations hinder the development of a new technology, a role for the federal government can make good sense. There is a strong argument for government involvement in important areas of technology that contribute to the technology goal enunciated above, but that are not aggressively pursued by private industry, even though the economic return to the nation as a whole may be great. History offers many examples where federal investments in technology have paid off handsomely. The federal government’s support, for national security reasons, of aeronautics, semiconductors, computers, and satellite communications helped produce
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era thriving U.S. industries. On the other hand, the federal government has supported large projects that failed. It has spent billions of dollars on such technologies as the breeder reactor and synthetic fuel production that have fallen far short of their original ambitious aims.7 Some failures, of course, are inevitable. Policymakers must both expect and learn from them. When the federal government chooses to foster the development and adoption of technology, it can do so by a number of routes. It can further ease antitrust restrictions to allow companies to cooperate on precompetitive research. When appropriate, it can also catalyze these consortia through partial funding. The government can direct agencies that support mission-driven research and development to seek broader applications for the technologies developed. It can also use its procurement policies to boost fledgling technologies or clear new paths for technology development. The government can also directly support commercially important research and technology development in universities or in industry. Federal programs that provide a base for these efforts include the Advanced Technology Program at the Department of Commerce, the Advanced Research Projects Agency in the Department of Defense, and the Science and Technology Centers and Engineering Research Centers supported by the National Science Foundation. An additional approach that has been suggested by this committee’s Panel on the Government Role in Civilian Technology is the formation of a Civilian Technology Corporation designed to stimulate investment in civilian technologies with high social rates of return (see note 3). The network of hundreds of federal laboratories that conduct both basic and mission-driven research represents an additional resource. The federal government invests over twice as much money in these laboratories as it does in university research, and the largest laboratories are among the nation’s largest employers of scientists and engineers. More than half of these government
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era laboratories conduct defense-oriented research. With the end of the Cold War, many of them are looking for new missions. Some are likely to shrink substantially, and others are likely to close. But some defense-oriented laboratories, as well as some laboratories with other missions, may have the potential to contribute to the nation ’s civilian technology base. Such new missions will need to be discharged in close collaboration with the relevant private-sector entities. In view of the difficulty of meshing the cultures of the laboratories and business organizations, performance must be closely evaluated to ensure that the funds could not be spent more productively in other ways. PRINCIPLES TO OBSERVE IN THE FEDERAL SUPPORT OF TECHNOLOGY Whatever routes the government chooses in its support of commercially promising research and development, it can increase the probability of success by following certain principles. Responsiveness to Market Signals First, federal efforts to support commercial technologies should be inspired by marketplace demands as interpreted by industry rather than by political or special-interest pressures. There are several promising approaches. The first is to let industry take the lead in initiating and designing collaborative efforts. Industrial leadership will help ensure that programs are driven by market forces and will keep the government from inappropriately specifying which technologies or companies should be supported. The second is to insist that industry share costs to a meaningful degree. Jointly funded research and development help to link projects closely to market signals and to industrial efforts. When a company or industrial sector is willing to put up its own funds, its commitment to an undertaking is likely to be greater. This is the case, for example, with cooperative R&D agreements
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era between federal laboratories and industry, and with the new technology programs being advanced by the current administration. The third is to apply frequent and rigorous evaluation, both technical and economic, to a project’s promise and performance. These evaluations should be made by independent experts in relevant scientific, technological, and economic areas. Complete insulation from politics is rarely, if ever, achievable. Wherever possible, however, institutional guidelines should be designed to minimize the intrusion of purely political influences into federal decisions involving technology. The Importance of Stable Support and Long Time Horizons In its support of scientific research, the government recognizes that social benefits may be widely separated in time from the work that makes them possible. But in the case of promoting new technologies, political pressures often demand unrealistically quick returns from federal investments. Of course, mechanisms need to be in place to terminate programs that have proven unsuccessful. But federal efforts to promote technology will be hindered unless the government can adopt a long-term perspective. The evaluation process is the key to balancing patience with accountability. Technology development programs must have goals against which progress can be measured. Cutoff dates for federal funding may be appropriate mechanisms for limiting federal involvement. The lessons of early programs must be carefully studied to improve the design of subsequent efforts. A Focus on Technology Adoption as Well as Technology Development Federal assistance in developing world-class technologies is rarely sufficient to achieve national goals. The federal government must also work with the private sector to reduce the costs, create
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era the skills, and increase the incentives needed to adopt effective technologies. With a few important exceptions—most notably agriculture— the federal government has devoted much less attention to the adoption of technology than to its development. In recent years it has taken tentative steps in this direction through such programs as the Manufacturing Technology Centers of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the State Technology Extension Program. But these programs reach only a small fraction of potential clients, particularly among small and medium-sized businesses. These programs should be substantially expanded, at least on an experimental basis. The adoption of new technology is a costly and often knowledge-intensive process. Its success depends on such factors as the skills of workers, the availability of investment capital, and the foresight of management. But technology adoption is crucial to the strength of an economy because it is the means by which technologies diffuse from high-technology industries to firms in more mature and less R&D-intensive industries, including many of those in the service sector. Recognizing the Growing Role of the States State governments have invested in and experimented with a number of mechanisms to foster links between publicly funded research and particular industries. These efforts have led to a variety of state programs designed to boost economic competitiveness through science and technology. Today, these programs are poorly coordinated with federal efforts. This leads to confusion over roles and to less-than-optimal investments. The federal government and the states should establish a mechanism through which information can be exchanged to leverage federal resources through state and local activities.8
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era OTHER INFLUENCES ON INDUSTRIAL PERFORMANCE The importance of technology adoption reflects an important aspect of the overall role of technology in the U.S. economy. Cutting-edge technology is not enough to guarantee industrial success, just as frontier research is not sufficient to achieve national goals. Rather, the development of forefront technology must be combined with other factors to influence the performance of private industry. These factors include the availability and cost of investment capital, opportunities for profit, the skills of the work force, the regulatory environment in which companies operate, trade policies, and the physical infrastructure supporting the economy. Government has varying degrees of influence over these factors, but government policies in these areas are rarely determined by considerations of technology. Furthermore, in a given case, any of these factors can be more important than technology in determining the competitive status of a company or an industry. The relationship of technology to industry is thus similar to that of science to technology: it is an increasingly necessary but not sufficient component of success. REFERENCES 1. Michael L. Dertouzos, Richard K. Lester, Robert M. Solow, and the MIT Commission on Industrial Productivity. Made in America: Regaining the Productive Edge. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989. 2. John A. Alic, Lewis M. Branscomb, Harvey Brooks, Ashton B. Carter, and Gerald L. Epstein. Beyond Spinoff: Military and Commercial Technologies in a Changing World. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992. 3. Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Panel on the Government Role in Civilian Technology. The Government Role in Civilian Technology: Building a New Alliance . Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1992. 4. National Academy of Engineering, Committee on Technology Policy Options in a Global Economy. Mastering a New Role: Shaping Technology Policy for National Economic Performance. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993. 5. Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, Task Force on Science, Technology, and Economic Performance. Technology and Economic Performance: Organizing the Executive Branch for a Stronger National Technology Base. New York: Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, 1991.
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era 6. Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, Committee on Science, Technology, and Congress. Science, Technology, and Congress: Expert Advice fsfand the Decision-Making Process. New York: Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, 1991. 7. Linda R. Cohen and Roger G. Noll with Jeffrey S. Banks, Susan A. Edelman, and William M. Pegram. The Technology Pork Barrel. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1991. 8. Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government. Science,Technology, and the States in America’s Third Century. New York: Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology, and Government, 1992.
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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era SUMMARY OF TECHNOLOGY GOAL Although the federal government has had a policy of supporting research in basic science and engineering, it has regarded the development and adoption of technology as largely a responsibility of the private sector, except in such areas as defense, public health, and agriculture. Present conditions warrant a reexamination of the federal government ’s policies toward technology development and adoption. We have recommended that the federal government adopt the goal of maintaining a leadership position in those technologies that promise to have a major and continuing impact on broad areas of industrial and economic performance. These technologies should be in areas that could lead to major new industries, should be in areas where U.S. firms have demonstrated their ability to convert technology into marketable products, or should be based on national strategic considerations. Achieving this goal requires a new partnership between the federal government and the private sector. This partnership should incorporate a responsiveness to market signals, stable support and long time horizons, a focus on technology adoption as well as technology development, and a recognition of the growing role of the states.
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